Swaziland – tradition, autocracy and corruption – I

Ever since first reading, many long years ago, about the traditional dance ceremony where the Swazi king selects a new bride to join his harem, I had been fascinated by this obscure and exotic country.  But I found Swaziland to be neither a Shangri-la nor a jungle kingdom.

(Daily Times, 17 April 2013) 

Arriving from Kruger National Park in South Africa very early in the morning, I had to wait for a while for the border posts to open in order to enter the Kingdom of Swaziland.  The officers on both sides arrived at the appointed time and the immigration formalities, which included visa for myself and entry for my rental car, were completed quickly and without fuss.

But the Swazi customs officer did not take kindly to some fruits on the back seat of my car.  “Oh, fruits, you are carrying fruits!” she screamed in a tone more appropriate for a haul of drugs.  I nervously told her that these were leftovers from just across the border and I would be happy to throw them away.  But she went nearly hysterical, calling in her male superior, who calmly said I could keep the fruits. Be it known that most things in Swaziland (including fruits) are imported from South Africa.

Landlocked Swaziland is a small hilly country, about a quarter the size of Sri Lanka, surrounded on all sides by South Africa, except for a 105 kilometre border with Mozambique. While Swaziland has thus escaped total encirclement by its large and powerful neighbour, Lesotho has not.  Neighbouring Lesotho is the only country in the world which is completely surrounded by another.

There are seven other states in the world that have a border with only one other country, but unlike Swaziland they are not landlocked: Canada (borders USA), Denmark (Germany), Gambia (Senegal),Monaco (France), Portugal (Spain),Qatar (Saudi Arabia), and South Korea (North Korea).

Ever since first reading, many long years ago, about the traditional dance ceremony where the Swazi king selects a new bride to join his harem, I had been fascinated by this obscure and exotic country. But I found Swaziland to be neither a Shangri-la nor a jungle kingdom. Underdeveloped it is, but not devoid of modern amenities, with many of the ills of a modern society and few attributes of an old one.

It is, in fact, an “endangered country”, threatened by the most “modern” of ailments. Swaziland’s economic growth and social survival is at risk because of its disastrous HIV epidemic. The infection rate in the country is the highest in the world at 26% of all adults and over 50% of adults in their 20s.

Driving to the commercial city of Manzini from the capital, Mbabane, I chose to take the secondary road through the scenic Lombana valley, rather than the faster motorway. Seeing a sign pointing to the “Royal Residence” to my right, I naturally turned in that direction.  Within a few minutes, I was at the main gate of the royal residence.  Getting out of my car, I slowly walked to the gate, which was guarded by a few uniformed soldiers and two policemen, all looking rather relaxed and leisurely. The royal residence itself was not visible from the entrance and, after a little chat with the two policemen, I quickly walked back to my car.

One of the policemen followed me and peeked into the car as if inspecting its contents, causing me some anxiety as to his intent.  When I was about to enter and take my seat in the car, he asked me for “drink money”.  Not sure if it would be appropriate to hand money to a policeman in front of the royal residence, in full view of other uniformed officers, I waved him bye and quickly took to the road again.

I had barely got back on the main road when I was flagged down by a policeman standing in the middle of the road.  I was the only one he flagged down while allowing the rest of the traffic to flow through.  I felt my heart in my throat.  Had the policeman at the royal palace, whom I had refused “drink money”, called up his colleagues on the road and asked them to teach me a lesson?  What was in store for me?  I could easily be accused of “suspicious movements” in front of the palace and learn a thing or two about policing in this “traditional” kingdom.

I was directed to another policeman peering intently into a radar.  After being ignored for a few minutes, I asked him why I had been stopped.  He replied that I had been caught on his radar driving at 70 kilometres per hour in a 60 km/hour zone. Now relieved that my summons had nothing to do with my visit to the palace gate, I mustered the courage to tell him that, because speed limit signs were few, “I thought I was in a 70 km/hour zone.” To which the policeman retorted in a magisterial tone: “It’s not what you think, it’s what the law says.”                    

When I asked him what happened next, I was told to pay a fine of 60 Emalangeni (US$ 7) and directed to a police car parked a few metres behind us.  A lone police officer was on the back seat of the car, half asleep.  Seeing me, he awoke from his slumber. When I said I was there to pay a fine, he asked for 60 Emalangeni. Taking the three 20-Emalangeni notes I held in my hand, he opened a very large register with many blank spaces to be filled. 

Not wanting to leave my personal details with the police in Swaziland, I asked the policeman if it was OK for me to go without the bother of filling the details on the register.  Without batting an eyelid, he closed the register and I merrily walked away.  After I had taken a few steps, I had a sudden desire to check what “the law says” in this small matter.  Retracing my steps, I said: “Since I have not taken a receipt, shouldn’t I get a discount?”  Again, without batting an eyelid, the policeman returned me one 20-Emalangeni note and resumed his state of rest.  I had earned a 33% discount for evading a record of my traffic infringement!

                                                   By Razi Azmi


This entry was posted in Travelogues. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Swaziland – tradition, autocracy and corruption – I

  1. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Razi Azmi Shaib, Thank you taking us along on your wonderful journey through Africa. We surely learn a lot.

  2. Javed Agha says:

    Razi, very interesting episode. In a foreign land and that too in Africa, your encounters with police are scary. Be careful in future.

  3. PK says:

    Razi: I took a casual peek at the listings of Transparency International 2012. I thought Swaziland is much better in its corruption rating , 88 against India’s 94 where the country is described by its own people as Corruption Raj where politicians including many ministers at provincial and federal level can get away with massive corruption, rape, criminality and even murder with its present prime minister fallen asleep at the wheel of running affairs of the state. Um, is no different in many countries in S.Asia too! So why point fingers at poor Africans, I wonder.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      PK, I am not pointing fingers at anyone, nor rating countries according to their corruption, but merely describing my experience. Of course, the police and other state functionaries take bribes in India, Pakistan, BD and many other countries. But how, and why, should that stop me from describing Swaziland as I saw it?

      • PK says:

        Razi: after a taking a look at my comment again, I must agree with you. It can give a reader a wrong impression that you were biased or condescending towardAfricans. There was no such intent. It was an inadvertent and a poor choice of words and syntax in an environment of Ipad and mobile texting! My sincere apologies.

        My real point ( which I did not express due to shortage of space) was to express that events such as pogroms and genocide drawing upon political or religious ideologies with unbelievable degree of barbarism, primitiveness have occurred in most societies in our own life time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *